November 25, 2004
Thanksgiving is a curious holiday. It comes to us from the ancient tradition of a harvest festival, which was both a celebration and a ceremony of gratitude. People were glad that adequate crops had been gathered for the winter and grateful to whomever or whatever made the gathering possible. Over time, the day evolved into an acknowledgment of all our blessings, the goods of life, so to speak.
I think most of us know that life has good features. But we know, also, that it has monstrosities of horrible dimensions. What we don't know, as well as we might, is how the goods and the horrors interact with one another.
For a long time I've been convinced that the way the horrors maintain such a foothold among us is by persuading us to put secondary goals ahead of things that ought to come first. We all have things we want, but I don't believe many of us have a clear and steady understanding of the true ranking of our desires. We want wealth, we want power, we want recognition, we want entertainment, we want to be set above other people by prestige and fame and institutional standing. But, we also want to feel the wind on our faces, to be warmed by a cup of coffee, to sink comfortably at night into a clean bed, to see the smile on the face of a happy child.
There's a strong notion among us that we get the second set of goals by attaining the first set, or, in other words, that the path to contentment and meaning lies through wealth and power. That's a lie. The best way Thanksgiving can retain a serious social function and be more than just a day off from work is for us to dedicate it to refuting that lie.
Thanksgiving ought to be a day when we remind ourselves of what really counts, what really comes first, what really gives us meaning and standing as human beings. I'm not so idealistic as to expect people to give up their secondary goals. You want some extra money, you want the promotion at work, you want to win the game. It's okay to want those things and to work for them. It's more than okay; it's necessary. Yet, for all their importance, they don't come close to the simple pleasures of everyday life -- a friendly hand on the shoulder, a cat jumping up beside you on the sofa to have her head scratched, the feel of a baby being lifted from its bath, the wonder of a pen and paper to record your thoughts, the gleaming glory of a sunset in the West. It we could all teach ourselves genuinely to cultivate the experience of pure being, and to remember that all people have the same basic needs we do, then we would take steps towards a world we can truly be thankful for. That's the lesson we ought to study every Thanksgiving as sincerely as we can.
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